By Childs Walker and Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun
3:22 PM EDT, June 29, 2013
Bob Bowman gets to the question before it can even be raised.
"You guys want to know if Michael's coming back," he says to a pair of visitors.
Michael is Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time and Bowman's pupil from gawky adolescence. Twitter has buzzed in recent weeks with rumors of Phelps abandoning his planned retirement.
"I'd be the first to know," Bowman says. "And I haven't heard a thing from him. So the imminent comeback is not so imminent."
Furthermore, he would not want Phelps to resume swimming unless the great Olympian was absolutely committed, more committed than he was leading up to the 2012 London Games. Bowman grew so frustrated with Phelps' pre-Olympic malaise that at one point, he left the country for weeks to decompress.
"I would only let him come back if he really wanted to do it," he says, looking skeptical at the idea in his office at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in North Baltimore.
With that subject nipped in the bud, Bowman is ready to chat about his own life over the past 10 months. He has only recently resumed day-to-day coaching after a post-Olympics swirl that included consulting trips to England and Turkey, a rekindling of his interest in thoroughbred racing and lazy (well, relatively) days at his beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
He returned refreshed and more forgiving, in time to prepare 12 swimmers for the Phillips 66 U.S. National Championships and World Championship Trials, which concluded Saturday in Indianapolis. Focusing on a larger team has invigorated him, friends say.
Every day for the better part of 12 years, Bowman woke with one purpose — to get Phelps ready for the next Olympics. So when they finished their quest last summer — the record for total Olympic medals finally theirs — the coach began a long exhale.
As an obsessive student of swimming, he could not have asked for a more invigorating experience than working with Phelps. But it was exhausting as well — the schedule, the competition, the scrutiny all so much more heightened than with any other swimmer.
"I put him through the wringer," Phelps says. "I'll be the first to tell you that. When I first started with him, that hair was brown. Now it's nothing but white. I forced that hair change."
Bowman, 48, thought he might be done with coaching.
"Honestly, I did not think I was coming back," he says of his post-Olympic months.
For the first time in decades, he did not have to keep daily practice appointments at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. Weekends were an open book. If he felt like driving to his beach house or visiting his friend Graham Motion, who trains Bowman's thoroughbreds at Fair Hill, he could do it.
He found plenty of work in swimming without coaching potential Olympians. He and Phelps were busy opening Michael Phelps swim schools in New York and California. They worked on a pilot for Phelps-Bowman academies, designed to train top swimmers in other countries. Through his ties with top international athletic officials, Bowman secured consulting gigs with the national swimming programs in the United Kingdom and Turkey.
He has been to Istanbul three times in recent months. "It's just a lot of talking and asking questions," he says. "I'm finally just getting a good picture of what exists over there."
Turkey has private athletic clubs with sparkling 50-meter pools and a bustling system of youth participation. But the whole thing lacks overarching management, which is where Bowman — gifted with a sense of purpose — comes in.
Despite his long ties to USA Swimming, he feels no qualms about lifting other countries to more competitive levels.
"It makes everybody better," he says. "We're doing what Michael has always talked about. We want to grow the sport of swimming worldwide."
On some basic level, however, this loose and free existence did not suit Bowman, whose pink face and rounded features belie his intensity. The truth is he likes rising with the sun and going to the pool to do grunt work with swimmers who share his fierce dedication.
"I'm not a good vacationer," he says. "If I'm at Rehoboth, I can sit on the beach for an hour and love it. If I'm reading a book, I can be good for two.
"But the third hour, I'm like this," he says, glaring down at his watch.
He felt called back to the familiar lanes at Meadowbrook and a group of 10-12 swimmers who have set their sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The North Baltimore Aquatic Club crew includes old hands such as three-time Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt and Bel Air native Chase Kalisz and another American gold medalist, Conor Dwyer. There's also a 6-foot-8 Frenchman scything through the water at Meadowbrook. Bowman thought someone was pranking him when he got a direct message on Twitter from Yannick Agnel, who won two gold medals in London.
But it turned out a 12-year-old Agnel had been inspired by watching Bowman and Phelps at a European workout. And now the French star thought Bowman could coach him to a higher level. Bowman said he'd be in Colorado for a month, so maybe they could talk at the end of the summer.
Instead, Agnel said, "I'll be in Colorado on Saturday." Such seriousness is the surest way to Bowman's heart. He quickly agreed to coach Agnel.
Of course, the conversation with Bowman always comes back around to Phelps. And with a little distance, he's feeling expansive on the subject.
For the first time, they're pals, the kind who can hang out at Ravens games and trade funny texts about nothing in particular. They recently sat at Wit & Wisdom in Harbor East, sipping wine, looking out at the water and reflecting on past quarrels and triumphs.
They could never be so casual when it was Bowman's job to drive Phelps to unthinkable heights. "He knew there was a part of me that had an agenda," Bowman says. "There was a feeling of, 'What are you going to want from me next?'"
Phelps often made winning look so easy that it clouded how difficult his training had been — and how volatile the relationship between coach and pupil could become. Jon Urbanchek remained in Ann Arbor after Bowman replaced him as head coach at the University of Michigan, and he would hang around the pool during training. Soon enough, he had an active role in the day-to-day shaping of a champion.
"I felt like the grandfather," Urbanchek says. "Bob would be screaming at Michael and Michael would be screaming at Bob. I'm in the middle, telling Bob to go to his office and Michael to go to the locker room. Separate for 10 minutes, and maybe we can try this again."
That tension became heightened in the four years between Phelps' record-smashing performance in Beijing and his last ride in London.
Phelps simply did not want to train as hard or as often.
"Michael is difficult. Everybody knows that," Urbanchek says. "He can focus on training 65 days a year. The other 300, it was Bob working his magic."
Phelps, who as a young boy often infuriated Bowman by initiating games of tag with other swimmers when they were supposed to be warming up, views his changed approach to training as part of his own maturation.
"I started voicing my opinions a lot more," Phelps says. "I wasn't an 11- or 15-year-old kid. I took more of an active role and there were more disagreements. Bob wasn't accustomed to that. It got very tense. Just brutal battles."
Bowman feared Phelps would embarrass himself in London, where the viewing public would compare him to his own impossible standard.
"I could logically sit back and tell myself that nothing he did in London could take away from Beijing," Bowman says. "But I kept thinking that for him to fall off at the end would be a shame."
He grew so frustrated that in April 2011, he left Phelps for three weeks to bum around in Australia. He visited other coaches, Urbanchek says, seeking a way to break from the routine that had served him so well.
At first, Phelps felt frustrated by his coach's absence.
"I thought if he didn't stick it through, why should I have to show up for practice?" he says. "But I think we both used that time to learn a lot about ourselves and to change the way we related. It was painful but worth it in the end."
Looking back, Bowman says, he would have handled the entire period differently, pushing Phelps more judiciously. "I kept telling him, 'You're never going to get there. You'll never be in shape. You're so lazy,'" he recalls, pounding his fist into his palm for emphasis. "And surprise, he didn't want to come to practice."
When Bowman backed off, Phelps picked up his work.
In some sense, he was right to be concerned, though. Phelps could not smash the competition at the Olympic Trials and bounce back a month later to do the same in London. He was not as fit as he had been for Beijing.
But he still had as good a meet as anyone, still won his last individual race and last relay. Bowman's face brightens at the memories of their final days as teacher and pupil. "The way it ended up was great," he says.
Urbanchek, who first met Phelps and Bowman when they arrived together to train with the national team before the 2000 Olympics, reveled in those final days watching what he believes was greatness bred from chemistry that couldn't have been replicated.
"You hear people say anybody could have coached Michael Phelps," he says. "That's [not so]. I'm the first person to say that I feel I know how to coach champions, but only Bob could have done what Bob did with Michael."
"There's zero chance anyone else could have taken me where Bob did," he says. "Zero. I've thought about it so many times. I've thought about so many other coaches. Bob just knew me the best, had me figured out. I owe him so much."
Post-Michael life is easier in many ways. Bowman used to begin every meet by plotting with organizers how Phelps could enter and exit without being mobbed. He had to have someone watch Phelps' water bottles so no one would steal them.
Now, he can just show up and coach.
He's different with his swimmers, too, less of a blunt hammer.
"I hear he's smiling and laughing on the deck," Urbanchek says. "That's not the Bob I know."
That guy was right for some competitors, including the young Phelps, who would take on any demand, no matter how arduous.
But in dealing with post-Beijing Phelps, Bowman had to expand his kit of coaching tools. He shares an anecdote from a recent training session in California to illustrate his maturation.
One of his swimmers, Annie Zhu, had just completed her endurance laps, and Bowman pointed her to another lane for further work. She shook her head and said, "I'd really rather not."
The younger Bowman might have tossed Zhu on the next flight home, her ears ringing from a scathing lecture about lack of commitment. "I would've used a nuclear bomb to kill an ant," he says.
The current Bowman? He shrugged it off and told her to get her tail in the pool, which she did.
Phelps has visited several practices, both to talk to Bowman and watch Dwyer, who is staying at Phelps' home in Canton.
"He's totally different," Phelps says. "And I think that's a good thing. He's learned so much and grown up as a coach."
Ensconced in his home base in North Baltimore, Bowman seems a happy guy, prefacing many statements with hearty laughs.
When he and Phelps trained at the University of Michigan pre-Beijing, they called it the Taj Mahal because of the expansive weight room and immaculate pool. Meadowbrook, by contrast, remains a humble family swim club, two quick turns off Falls Road.
To get to Bowman's office, you walk past pot-bellied regular folks working out on Nautilus machines. There's space only for his desk, two chairs and a big window overlooking the indoor lap lanes. When Phelps and Schmitt prepared for London, it wasn't unusual for packs of local kids to be doing cannonballs on the other side of the pool.
"That's what's so endearing," Bowman says. "I don't think blue-collar is the right word, but it's homey."
The scene is very Baltimore, reminiscent of the days when you could eat next to Johnny Unitas at a corner tavern or stop Brooks Robinson for a chat at the mall. Bowman thinks the mundane chaos is good for elite swimmers. That way they won't be thrown off by the swarms of people watching their every step at the Olympics.
When Phelps and Bowman came back from Michigan and took out a long-term lease on the club, some talked about Meadowbrook becoming an East Coast mecca, comparable to the elite swimming facilities in California and Florida. But the place looks largely unchanged. Phelps and Bowman flirted with buying the neighboring Northwest Ice Rink but have opted against it, Bowman says, because they simply don't need the space.
He says he's thrilled with the development of Meadowbrook's programs, which include the Phelps swim school and his own corps of top, post-collegiate swimmers. That, combined with their planned facilities in other places, is enough for now.
"Any child in Maryland can come in those doors right there and know they will go as far as their talent can carry them," Bowman says, peering down from his office. "Right here."
It's a Thursday afternoon in mid-June, with violent thunderstorms threatening from the West. But virtually nothing interrupts the daily toil at Meadowbrook. Though it's strange to stumble in from the parking lot and immediately see two gold medalists knocking out laps in a nearby lane, that's everyday life here.
This is a low-key practice, meaning these world-class athletes will swim "only" about 3 miles before lifting weights outside.
"Perhaps some effort might be good," Bowman chides, though he says it with a smile. "I don't see a lot of heavy breathing right now."
He worked them hard the day before, so he says they're treating this practice as seriously as kids take a snowy day at school.
"Allison will go just as slow as I let her," he says, nodding to the broad-shouldered Schmitt, only his most decorated current swimmer. She mostly grins off his jabs.
The swimmers who've worked with Bowman for a while say he really has mellowed, especially since his post-Olympic hiatus.
"I think he was able to relax a bit," says Zhu, home from her freshman year at the University of Georgia. She says Bowman is a lot nicer than she thought he'd be based on stories she heard before she joined the club.
And the truth is these swimmers, all wearing red caps with NBAC on one side and Rio 2016 on the other, don't want Bowman to be too cuddly. They're hoping he nudges them the last few steps to greatness, just like you know who.
Bowman strides from pool to pool, calling off the next set of required strokes from that day's schedule, which he hand-wrote on a piece of graph paper. Copies of it are plastered to wet kickboards at the head of each lane, so swimmers can check to see whether they've met the goals their coach set.
They mostly do, without much distraction. In the same lanes where Phelps churned out laps and chafed at hollered exhortions, the next set of Bowman's charges work steadily as he watches intently, pacing slowly, lost in the motion of their arms and legs.
"Today," he says, "I think they're disciplined enough."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun